Randy Bachman is no slouch when it comes to writing hit songs. Between his tenures in the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive alone, the Canadian treasure has likely pegged more than 50 million in album sales. But he may have brought his formidable songwriting, arranging, producing, and guitar chops under fire when he endeavored to radically recast the music of “serious Beatle” George Harrison for By George [Universal].
Populated with 11 Harrison classics and one original song about Harrison (“Between Two Mountains”), the album veers more to Bachman’s jazz sensibilities in that it holds the sacred rather, well, unsacred. Melodies and chords are dispensed with and replaced, grooves are re-engineered, and everything is approached as material ripe for almost catastrophic revision. While a couple of songs get a light or jazzy treatment, most of the set is like a stomping, frenzied arena-rock explosion of huge, overdriven guitars and heaps of badass solos. It’s all a brave, interesting, and, yes, even respectful celebration of a musician whose shadow looms eternal over rock culture and society in general. But… would you have taken such a risk?
Well, man, you really punk-rocked George’s sh*t. I didn’t expect to hear those classic songs so severely rearranged.
[Laughs.] You can’t outdo lightning in a bottle. Any time those four crazy lunatics got in a studio with [producer] George Martin this lightning bolt came out. That’s pretty hard to replicate. So I thought, “I’m going to retake this body of work, and put some new clothes on George.” It’s 50 years on, it’s his 75th birthday—and it’s my 75th this year, as well—so let’s f**king celebrate! Let me sing his songs the way I want to sing them. Let me put them through a ringer. I just hope his fans will appreciate that we weren’t looking to do anything sacrilegious. In fact, it was something closer to hero worship, because the songs remain in everyone’s heart and soul, and they still stand up after 50 years.
How did you even start this process of unhinging the original arrangements?
I took 30 of George’s songs, printed up the lyrics, and listened to drum loops on Apple GarageBand, while asking myself, “Can I fit these lyrics into this tempo, and in between these beats?” I would just play around until—cha-ching—one would hit. Then, I’d go to work. George had like 15 chords in “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth).” I took it down to three chords. “Something” has a zillion jazz chords, so I made it into two chords—like a Robin Trower song. I put “Here Comes the Sun” in a minor key, and I added some of my jazz voicings. When we got to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” it was time to go berserk, “Neil Young crazy.” I was lucky enough to get Walter Trout for the outro solo, which sounded like Hendrix had landed in the studio. It was a lot of fun.
Ultimately, you choose 12 songs to put on the album. Once you made the final selections, did you have the arrangements locked and loaded?
Not always. For some songs, I had five or six versions with different chords and different tempos. When you get different chords, you change the odd little melody line to fit a blue note here or there, and I would play around with those things until something blew me away. I have to admit that a lot of things were pure happenstance. I felt the angels were shooting arrows at me, and rather than duck them, I opened my arms and let them hit me in the heart.
It’s also cool that, like a video game or a Marvel movie, you tossed around some “guitar Easter eggs”—little nods to other songs, solos, or riffs in some of the tracks.
Yeah! During the intro to “Think For Yourself,” we put in his riff from “My Sweet Lord.” In “Between Two Mountains,” my middle solo cops the beginning of “And I Love Her.” I sprinkled George’s licks throughout different songs on the album. It’s almost like a contest for guitar players. “Oh, wow, that’s from ‘Taxman,’ or ‘Give Me Love’ or Wonderwall.” If you’re a real George/Beatles fan, you’ll listen to this and find sprinklings on the cake, so to speak, of different George Harrison riffs.
What was your main guitar for the By George sessions?
We did the final recording and mixing in Calgary at the National Music Centre Studio Bell, which is also Canada’s rock and roll museum. My 1959 Les Paul “American Woman” guitar is in the museum, so I asked if someone could go get it. They said, “There are guards there.” I said, “Well, it’s my guitar, so could you call the head guy?” Finally, they took it out of its case and brought it into the studio, and I used it. There aren’t really a lot of guitars on the album—most of it is that ’59 Les Paul. It’s really heavy—almost like it’s made of petrified wood—but that’s the sound of “American Woman.” It’s a great guitar, but it was just too heavy to play onstage. I ended up playing it sitting down in the studio, and then I’d put it right back in its case. The funny thing is that Gibson made me a chambered ’59 reissue Les Paul that weighs just eight pounds. I’ve been using it for live performances for about eight years now, and it’s all weather beaten and road worn. It’s now in worse shape than the original ’59 “American Woman” guitar!
For the sitar riff in “Between Two Mountains,” I didn’t have a sitar. But I did have a 4-string Gretsch tenor Dobro, so I tuned all the strings to the same note, and I lowered them down so they would buzz against the metal resonator. I’d play “bow-bow-ba-bow” on one string by shaking my second finger while the other strings were droning. All I needed was one good take, and then I cut and pasted the line where I needed it. I got very lucky with that Gretsch.
Did you ever run into George during your career?
I wish I would have met him, but I never did. But I felt like he visited me about six months ago when I wrote “Between Two Mountains.” I had already written some lyrics, but I was struggling. They were really dumb, like “How can I stand tall between a mountain like John and Paul?” I mean, they were like bubble-gum lyrics by a 14 year old.
Then, one night, I woke up at 3 am, feeling as if there was somebody in the room. But the thing in the room took me out of the room—like a dog wandering in and out and in and out until you get up and follow it. I followed this aura or essence to another bedroom where I had my laptop and guitars, and I started to write these lyrics: “There’s peace within. Just close your eyes. Angels in flight through space and time. I learned to wait. My time would come.” I was like, “Where are these coming from?” And they perfectly encapsulated what I was trying to say about George. Rather than being pissed off that he’s caught between these two creative mountains, he celebrates that he’s in-between them: “My light will shine between two mountains.”
Now, I’ve been given a couple of gifts in my life—such as “American Woman” and “Taking Care of Business”—but this was the greatest gift of them all. I felt I was guided by a George apparition. It was amazing.
Any worries about the “Beatles Mafia” putting out a hit on you for messing with these songs?
I hope not. I mean, take any band of musicians over 30, and say, “Go and record a bunch of Beatles songs, but change them so we don’t know what they are until you start singing.” Wouldn’t that be a joy and thrill? It was for me. I did this album out of pure love for this guy, and to celebrate how intelligently and eloquently he composed his solos and his songs.